From the 1983 season until the recently completed prep campaign this spring, Columbia County has been blessed with some amazing talent on the high-school diamonds.
Draft picks, All-Americans and college scholarships have been commonplace. Also, during the past two decades county teams have claimed 12 state championships and too many region titles to mention.
Granted, the Harlem Bulldogs got the ball rolling with three state titles in the 1970s, but the glory days for high-school baseball in Columbia County hit the high gear in the '80s and '90s, and the tradition has continued to this day.
As ambitious an undertaking as this might sound, I have compiled an All-Columbia County High School Baseball Team from 1983 to 2003. Also, the quest included an attempt to identify the top teams and individuals.
After discussing the stars with local coaches and former players, and from recalling some of the great players I've seen perform at the high-school level, I have tried to determine the best of the best from the past 20 years.
The following list features the top players, by position, their high school, the year they graduated, and a brief background on their stellar careers in Columbia County.
Catcher (tie): Michael Holder (Evans, 1994) and Buddy Holder (Evans, 1989). Michael was a tremendous hitter, and he also played shortstop and third base, but he was terrific behind the plate. He went on to have an outstanding career at Georgia Southern University. Buddy was one of the best leaders I've ever been around. He was an outstanding defensive catcher and a great clutch hitter.
First base: Mark Thornhill (Greenbrier, 1997). Thornhill played short for Evans and Greenbrier, and in college he played first base for the University of Georgia, where he had a great four years for the Bulldogs. While he was a shortstop in high school, I didn't balk at giving him a spot on this team at first base, mainly because local coaches were adamant that he deserved a place among the county's best. Thornhill was a winner, and always got the job done.
Second base: Lenny Springs (Evans, 1988). Springs was the best athlete I've seen in my time as a player, fan and broadcaster in the Augusta area. At Evans, he was a four-year starter in three sports, and he led the Knights to their first state baseball title in 1988. Springs went on to play at Southern Union Junior College and Jacksonville State University.
Shortstop: Craig Combs (Evans, 1990). This position was the toughest call to make on the list. Craig Cassedy would be a great choice, but when he missed most of his senior year at Evans with a broken wrist, Combs stepped in as a sophomore and quickly emerged as one of the top players on the team. Combs won state titles in each of his last three seasons at Evans, and he stole home to lift the Knights to a title in the his final high-school game.
Third base: Todd Greene (Evans, 1989). Greene hit 17 homers and led Evans to a 29-0 record during his senior season. In his last two years at Evans, the Knights posted a 58-1 record with two state titles, and both teams finished in the top five in the national high-school rankings. Greene was drafted three times, but stayed at Georgia Southern long enough to place second on college baseball's all-time home run list. After stints with the Anaheim Angels, Toronto Blue Jays, New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers, Greene now plays for the Texas Rangers.
Left field: Barry Luke (Harlem, 1983). One of the most-feared hitters to ever swing a bat in Columbia County, he helped lead Harlem to a state title in 1983.
Center field: James Shanks (Greenbrier, graduated in 1998 from Solomon Christian School). Although he didn't finish his prep career at Greenbrier, and while his high-school days were hampered by off-field troubles, no list of great county players is complete without Shanks. He displayed his ability in the 1997 state finals by swatting three homers and sparking the Wolfpack to a title-clinching victory over Hardaway. Shanks currently is a budding star in the Kansas City Royals organization.
Designated hitter: J.J. Johnson (Greenbrier, 2000). Johnson hit 10 or more home runs in his final three seasons with the Pack. He played outfield, shortstop, pitcher and was a designated hitter for Greenbrier - and hitting was his specialty. After helping the Pack capture two state crowns, he was drafted and now is playing in the Chicago Cubs organization.
Utility players (three): Craig Cassedy (Evans, 1988), Bradley Key (Greenbrier, 2001) and Jordan Belcher (Augusta Christian, 2003).
Cassedy was one of the smartest, most fundamentally sound players to ever lace up spikes for a local high-school squad. An injury to his left wrist in his senior season forced him to move from shortstop to pitcher, but he was dominant on the mound and a primary reason why the Knights went all the way in 1988.
Key was a four-year starter at second base for the Pack, and was a vital cog on two state-title teams. He also was one of the best pitchers to play in Columbia County. If you look at everything he did over four seasons, you could argue that Key had the most productive high-school career in county history.
Belcher claimed the local triple crown this spring, leading all area players in homers, RBIs and batting average. As a senior, he hit 18 home runs and batted over .550. Last month he was drafted by Cincinnati and is currently playing minor league ball in Sarasota, Fla.
Pitchers: Carl Garnett (Evans, 1983); Joe Wise (Evans, 1986); Bruce Lampkin (Harlem, 1986); Mark Smith (Greenbrier, 1997); and, Brian Hall (Lakeside, 1993).
In the course of compiling this list, just about everyone I talked to said that Garnett was the best prep pitcher they've seen come through Columbia County. He threw hard and totally intimidated opposing hitters.
If Garnett is No. 1, then Wise has to be 1-A. He was a workhorse for the Knights throughout his career, and performed well at the next level for Georgia Tech.
Lampkin was talented, but mainly he was tough. He was only 5-foot-10 and 150 pounds or so, but he was a fearless competitor and tenacious on the hill. As a freshman he was the winning pitcher when Harlem clinched the state title, and he led the Dogs to another crown as a senior.
Smith did plenty of damage with his bat, but he also used his right arm to pitch the Pack to the 1997 Class AAA title. He was a force in the state playoffs, and was named Class AAA player of the year.
Hall was Lakeside's ace for three seasons, losing just twice and averaging two strikeouts per inning. As a junior, the lefty led Lakeside to the state finals.
As good as those first-team players were, they would have had a hard time beating these next guys. In some case, the second-team selections were nearly as good as the first-team players:
Catcher: Chris Halliday (Evans, 1993).
First base: Shane Pangle (Evans, 1995).
Second base: Tony McCladdie (Evans, 1994).
Shortstop: B.J. Long (Evans, 1998).
Third base: Roger Foltynowicz (Lakeside, 1996).
Center field: Tydus Meadows (Evans, 1995).
Left field: Gene Carter (Evans, 1990).
Right field: Mark Hamlin (Evans, 1992).
Designated hitter: Chad Thornhill (Greenbrier, 2001)
Utility players (three): Rodney Holder (Evans, 1991), Matt May (Harlem, 1999), and Rico Bravo (Lakeside 1998).
Pitchers: Chris Hall (Evans, 1993); Clint Sauls (Evans, 1994); Grady Blanchard (Evans, 1994); Mike Eckert (Evans, 1989); and, Ashley Schoates (Evans, 1988).
While poring over the past 20 years, more than 100 prep players were considered for the all-county teams. Here are some of the other stars that made a mark during their high school careers:
Evans: Ben Hayslip, Allen Dempsey, Carl Rau, William Rowland, Bill Blair, Brian Sharpe, Jon Lee, Justin Walker, Brandon Barenie, Bernard Marshall, Ryan Bennett, Tommy Greene.
Harlem: Justin Sheppard, Steve Crutchfield, Kevin Greene, Carl Minns, Bob Hatcher, Juan Cardona, Chuck Harrington, Thomas Clark, Kelvin Sturgis.
Greenbrier: Patrick Jones, Tony Smith, Will Anderson, Hampton Rowland, Nick Wandless, J.C. Widener.
Lakeside: Todd Stanford, Dino Dakuris, Mel Springs, Jeff Cason, Jamie Rigdon, Brian Nunnalee, David Rivers.
Augusta Christian: Brad Reed, Donnie Thomas, Will Reese, Jason Alford.
Now that the player listings are on the table, study the following team rankings, and let the debate begin:
Top 10 teams from 1983-2003
1. Evans, 1988 - the Knights went 29-1, and featured Springs, Greene, Cassedy, Combs, Hayslip, Marshall, Bennett, Buddy Holder, Carter, Schoates and Eckert.
2. Greenbrier, 1997 - Possibly the best-hitting team ever in Columbia County, featuring Shanks, Jones, Mark Thornhill, Smith and Widener.
3. Evans, 1993 - loaded pitching staff, with Hall, Blanchard, Sauls, Sharpe and Pangle on the mound.
4. Evans, 1989 - Greene's senior season, as the Knights went unbeaten.
5. Harlem, 1983 - The Dogs were vicious this season, especially stars Luke and Crutchfield.
6. Evans, 1994 - Blanchard and Sauls on the hill, plus Pangle, Meadows and Rowland doing their thing.
7. Evans, 1990 - Combs and Carter, and a young Hamlin, paved the way to a third straight title.
8. Greenbrier, 1998 and '99 - Both of these Pack teams were solid. Rowland and Anderson were the prime pitchers, with Key, Johnson and Chad Thornhill leading the charge at the plate.
9. Harlem, 1986 - Lampkin and Anthony Brown starred for the Dogs.
10. Augusta Christian, 1996 - The Lions went 30-0 to win the school's first state baseball title. Reed was a major force, but he had a solid supporting cast behind him.
As the capper, let's crown the kings of Columbia County baseball from the past two decades:
Best Pitcher (tie): Joe Wise and Carl Garnett. I would have been inclined to give Wise the nod for this honor, but some longtime observers of Columbia County baseball insist that Garnett was the best. Take your pick - either one could pitch for me any day.
Best position player: Todd Greene. In 1989, he blasted 17 homers while playing in the toughest region in the state, and along with pacing the state-title defense, Greene garnered Georgia Player of the Year honors.
Best coach: Terry Holder (Evans and Greenbrier). Was there really any doubt? Holder's teams won eight state titles in a 12-year span, five with Evans and three more with Greenbrier.
After leaving Evans in 1996 to become athletic director, football coach and baseball coach at Greenbrier, Holder guided the Pack to three straight crowns to conclude his coaching career on the diamond.
Aside from all the winning (527 career victories), Holder was the supreme motivator, and was determined to make each of his players the very best they could be, both on and off the field.
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